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       Unspeakable, p.2

           Erika Rummel
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I WAKE UP to the sound of tinny music. I open my eyes and see a pocket-size radio sitting on the cracked floor, the type you see in pictures from the fifties. It’s tuned to a Spanish language station with Latino music and staccato announcements in between. And now it comes back to me. I remember where I am, in a broken-back cabin in the desert outside Twentynine Palms, with a man hiding from the ICE. He is sitting on the floor, his back against the wall.

  I am confused. I came here sometime in the morning, but the bit of blue sky I see through the window has lost its intensity. The colour has drained away and gone late afternoon pale. I must have slept for hours.

  He pushes off the floor and comes over to where I’m lying on the sofa. I pull up my feet, and he sits down in the space I’ve freed up.

  “Are you Melanie Swan?” he says.

  I nod. How does he know my name?

  “I heard it on the news. Your mother said she can’t understand why you ran away. She loves you. She wants you back.”

  Me – running away? Where is that coming from?

  “They are looking for you all over San Bernardino,” he says. “They are asking for anyone with information to phone in.”

  Zee and his pal won’t be phoning in, I bet. They’ll be in a panic. As far as they are concerned, I can rot in the desert.

  “They said you are mute.”

  He wrinkles his forehead. He’s puzzled. How can I talk to him if I’m mute?

  I don’t know how to explain it to him.

  “I can talk,” I say. “It’s just that most of the time I don’t feel like talking.”

  He gives me a doubtful look. “That doesn’t make sense,” he says. “I’m no big talker, but nobody calls me mute because sometimes I don’t feel like talking.”

  “I’ve kept it a secret.”

  “You’ve kept what a secret?”

  “That I can talk. That’s why people think I’m mute. When I want to tell them something, I write it on a pad, or I text them, or I go on the computer and email them. I’m talking to you only because I have no choice.”

  He shakes his head. “That’s crazy.”

  “No, it’s not,” I say. The connection between my brain and my mouth is a downhill slide, I tell him. I worry about putting words on that slide. I’m afraid the wrong words will spill out of my mouth, and I can’t stop them, I can’t take them back. When I write, the words don’t go anywhere. They lie flat on the screen, open to inspection, waiting for my final approval. Before I press send, I tweak the words until they say exactly what I mean. Writing is safer than speaking, especially when I’m on the receiving end of a message. I can stop reading, but I can’t stop listening. I have no control over what people say to me. I can’t gag them. I can’t plug their mouths. All I can do is scream to shut out the sound of their voices. And if I do want to listen to them, I can’t hold on to their words. They brush by my face, and the next moment they are just an echo in my eardrums. No, I like things in writing. If someone sends me a message, and I come to a line that’s too sad, or too painful, or too ugly, I don’t have to go on. I can stop reading before the words knock me sideways or burn a hole into my brain. I just press delete. And if I like a message, I can read it over as many times as I want. But I’m very careful about reading messages because once the words enter my brain, they have a way of sticking to the cranium walls. “I can’t root them out, especially the ones that turn into bad memories,” I say. “They grow like mildew. They spread and rot my insides.”

  He eyes me silently. For a moment I think he understands, but he doesn’t. He still thinks I’m crazy. He looks over my head to the door and says: “Okay, time for you to go.” His voice isn’t unfriendly. He just wants to get rid of me.

  I try to stall.

  “What’s your name?” I say.

  “None of your business.”

  “I’ll make one up for you, then. I’ll call you Luis. Okay?”

  He shrugs his shoulders. “Whatever. Just get moving. Walk out that door and forget you’ve seen me.”

  I give up stalling and put on my running shoes, but my feet are sore. I don’t see how I can walk for two hours to the cabins he has mentioned.

  “I can’t do it,” I say. “Besides, it’s going to be dark soon. And nobody will come looking for me here. You said they are looking for me in San Bernardino. Can I stay, Luis? Just one night. I’ll leave first thing in the morning. And I swear I won’t tell anyone about you.” I keep talking until I have softened him up, which isn’t difficult. He only looks tough. His body looks rock hard. His eyes are soft.

  He makes a sound halfway between a sigh and a groan. “I guess I’ll be gone by the time you have a chance to tell anyone.”

  “How are you going to get away?” I say.

  “None of your business,” he says.

  He opens up another can for dinner. This time it’s chili con carne. Now there are only two cans left in the closet. He also brings out cooked rice in a plastic tub, and serves it up with a bottle of water. I understand: I am on sufferance. I feel bad about eating into Luis’ rations. We share the meal silently, sitting cross-legged on the floor, picking the spots where the blue linoleum tiles haven’t cracked. Most of the floor is trampled earth, spackle and mud. Luis looks at me sparingly, an abridged look that doesn’t go much beyond the can of chili in his hand.

  After dinner, we kick back on the sofa and share the blankets he has. A prickly relationship is forming between us. I can see it in his eyes and in the way he sits, leaving me a bit of space on the sofa, but not too much.

  “So why did you run away?” he says.

  “I didn’t. I’ve told you already: I lost my way.”

  “You were skipping school, right?” His words hover, uncertain how to strike the air: with authority or buddy-like. They move past me and are gone before I can get an exact reading. It’s hard to tell where he’s heading. I keep my answer neutral.

  “I’m no longer in school,” I say. “The bullying got to me.” At first the kids left me alone, out of pity, or distaste, or embarrassment. That’s how they feel about mute people: sorry for them and, at the same time, put off by their strangeness. They turn away and pretend they’ve just spotted something interesting in the distance. They looked through me, especially the boys. Then, in Grade Six I developed breasts and became visible. My teenage body started to fight my brain. I couldn’t suppress the giggles. I had to toss my hair, I couldn’t help it. In Grade Eight, I had a fight with Andrea, who thought she was the queen bee. “There was this girl,” I tell Luis. “She called me a boyfriend stealing tart, but she was lying. I wasn’t after her boyfriend. I don’t even like boys.”

  “You don’t?” he says. He tips his head forward and blurs a smile. He knows I’m bluffing.

  “Not the boys in my class,” I say. “They want you to smoke up. And they treat you like dirt if you don’t bring enough beer to the party.” That’s just a guess because no one has ever asked me to a party.

  Luis grins like a Panda Bear. I don’t know why I was afraid of him. He has a plush-toy face.

  “And so you dropped out of school? Because the boys were giving you a hard time?”

  “I didn’t drop out. My mom is home-schooling me.”

  “Same thing. You don’t learn anything when you stay home.”

  “That’s what my dad says. He wants me back in school. He argues with my mom, all the time.” They argue on Skype. She tries to keep her voice level, but the sides of her nose flare, and the words come out with clenched teeth politeness. She can’t help signalling her frustration. He wants to know about the accreditation process. She tells him the state of California has no authority to evaluate home-schooled kids. All she is required to do is notify the school that she wants to withdraw me, and she has done that. She has joined a support group, she says, and shoots bullet points at him: Flexibility, individualized curriculum, uniquely structured time.

  “The teachers at school agreed with my mom,” I tell Luis. “I’m good in some subjects
: math and sciences, but I can’t do essays. I can never understand the instructions. I go way off topic. It’s because I’m autistic, they say, and that’s why I’m better off being tutored at home, one-on-one. You think I’m autistic, Luis?”

  “You’re asking me? I don’t know you, and I don’t know anything about autistic.”

  “It’s like this,” I say and define it for him. I’ve heard it so often, I know the characteristics by heart. They are neatly stacked in my brain. Restricted interests are at the bottom, boxed and caged, weighed down with impaired social interaction, a blanket of lead, then come layers of repetitive behaviour, spinning like old-fashioned records, playing the same tune over and over, scraping the groove. The whole pile is a spring loaded trap of sensitivity waiting to explode. I rattle off the catchphrases for Luis. “Limited interests, repetitive behaviour, reluctance to communicate,” I tell him.

  He shrugs. “Half the people I know are like that,” he says. “They do the same things every day. The go to work. They come home and eat. They watch TV and drink beer. They have no other interests. They don’t talk much. That’s autistic?”

  “No. And I’m not autistic either. I’m just different.”

  “Way different,” Luis says.

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